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Joint Base Lewis McChord PFAS Contamination was among the highest witnessed in the country. The contamination from the use of AFFF during training, spills, and emergency response activities has exposed the chemicals to groundwater in wells that the military, their families, and other workers living in these installations use for drinking, among other uses.
Military installations have used Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) to extinguish chemical fires and spills and during emergency response training exercises since the 1970s. The compound contains PFOS and PFOA, commonly known as forever chemicals, due to their ability to stay in the human body and environment unbroken for a long time (close to 1000 years). The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) links these chemicals to various health risks, including certain cancers, liver damage, infertility, asthma, low birth weight, and thyroid disease.
Thousands of military service people, civilians, and their families who drank the contaminated water are at increased risk of developing related illnesses. Those affected may be eligible for compensation for their suffering. To file a Joint Base Lewis McChord water contamination claim, contact Hugh at Stephens and Stephens, LLP.
What is AFFF?
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) contains fluorinated and hydrocarbon-based surfactants. Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are significant surfactant components in these firefighting foams. The carbon-fluorine bonds in these compounds are very strong, making the compounds difficult to disintegrate even at extremely high temperatures. As a result, these compounds are sprayed on chemical and fuel fires, cutting down the oxygen supply, putting off flames, and preventing the fire from spreading. Unlike most toxins, the human body cannot remove PFAS, and the chemicals accumulate with increased exposure. Humans are exposed to PFAS by eating food with these toxins and drinking contaminated water. Studies have shown that PFAS suppresses antibody response in animals, resulting in a wide range of illnesses.
About the Joint Base Lewis McChord
The Joint Base Lewis McChord occupies 90,837 acres along Interstate 5, three miles south of Tacoma, Washington. It borders Lakewood to the north and Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater to the south. The Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base was designated as the Lewis-McChord joint base in 2005 under the Base Realignment and Closure program and took effect in 2010. It resides over 100,000 people, including military personnel, families, civilians, contract employees, retirees, and their families.
The installation is managed by the Army and headed by an Army joint base commander and an Air Force deputy commander. It provides logistical support, maneuver areas, range, and facilities for I Corps and supporting units, as well as worldwide military airlift.
Joint Base Lewis McChord PFAS Contamination
In 2016, drinking wells water at Joint Base Lewis McChord was tested for PFAS. It was discovered that water in these wells contained PFAS levels as high as 237 ppt, exceeding those recommended by the EPA lifetime health advisory. At the time, the EPA PFOS and PFOA limit in drinking water was 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Recently, these limits were lowered to 0.02 ppt for PFOS and 0.004 ppt for PFOA after studies showed that even the slightest exposure to the chemicals was harmful.
In April 2016, JBLM tested the 23 drinking water production wells on the installation for PFOS and PFOA. Testing carried out between January and April 2017 confirmed that PFOS and PFOA exceeded the EPA HAL of 70 ppt in the following five drinking water wells on JBLM:
- North Well, McChord Airfield – 216 ppt
- South Well, McChord Airfield – 250 ppt
- Well #17, Lewis Main – 71 ppt
- Housing Well II, McChord Airfield – 72 ppt
- Golf Course Well #22 – 78 ppt
On 10 June 2016, the Department of Army directed all Army installations to conduct PFAS contamination assessments for known fire training areas, AFFF storage locations, fire equipment maintenance areas, hangars/buildings with AFFF suppression systems, and other areas where AFFF might have been used. In August 2016, the army PFAS assessment memo was released, providing instructions on sample design and the specific sampling and analysis methods for PFAS-related site investigations. Another Army Guidance Memo was released on 20 February 2018, requiring PFAS assessments to include the 14 analytes that could be identified by EPA Method 537.
The Department of Defense retains facilities in the CERCLA process for soil and groundwater risk-based screening levels (Screening Levels). It recommends Screening Levels of 40 ppt for PFOS and PFOA and 40 micrograms per liter or parts per billion (ppb) for PFBS. These Screening Levels help determine if further investigation in the remedial investigation (RI) phase is warranted or if the site can proceed to site closeout. The OSD Screening Levels are compared with results collected during the SI to determine the need for further evaluation.
In 2018, the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) Public Works Environmental Division contracted the United States (US) Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Seattle District, to carry out a Preliminary Assessment (PA) and Site Inspection (SI) for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS). First, they identified areas of potential interest (AOPIs) by determining if any PFAS-containing material was used, stored, or disposed of at those locations. The site inspection exercise took place in three phases, completed in 2019.
All the contaminated wells were shut down except for Golf Course Well, which has a point source treatment. Existing wells meet the EPA standards and adequately supply JBLM McChord Airfield and Lewis Main/North.
AFFF use at the Lewis McChord Installation
The use of aqueous film-forming foam at the installation began in the 1980s; before then, firefighters used protein-based foams that contained fluorochemicals. In the early 1990s, AFFF was used for firefighting training at different sites on the eastern McChord Airfield’s runway, Lewis North, and near Lewis Main’s Gray Army Airfield. The base identified 11 sites used as firefighting training sites and could be potential PFOS and PFOA contamination sources.
The storage and use of AFFF at the base are attributed to the highest risk of PFOS and PFOA contamination. AFFF was stored and distributed through aircraft hangars fitted with fire suppression and emergency response equipment with an aboveground AFFF storage tank. AFFF distribution pipes were fitted to the storage tank and placed in different locations in the hangar. These hangars at the McChord Airfield, Gray Army Airfield, and the facilities Logistics Center were subject to occasional system malfunctions leading to accidental leaks.
Firefighting foam would be discharged directly into the environment during routine foam spray pattern adjustment for aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) vehicles and training exercises. The ARFF 20 vehicle spray adjustment routine involved spraying the foam onto flight-line areas and around the perimeter of McChord runways.
The training exercises occurred east of the McChord Field runway, at the northeastern Gray Army Airfield, and southeast of Gray Army Airfield. The foam was then washed into the surrounding porous ground.
Other potential sources of PFOS and PFOA in the groundwater at the military joint base include landfills, waterproofing operations, groundwater treatment systems, historical laundries, and vehicle wash racks.
Joint Base Lewis NcChord Groundwater PFAS Sampling
Seventy-seven groundwater samples collected from existing and new groundwater monitoring wells, surface water bodies, and operating remediation systems were analyzed for PFAS compounds. These samples were collected from existing and new groundwater monitoring wells, operating remediation systems, and surface water bodies on-base locations:
- 60 samples were from wells screened in the Vashon Aquifer
- 16 samples from wells screened in the Sea Level Aquifer;
- 1 sample was collected from a well in the Stuck Formation.
In 23 samples collected and analyzed, PFOS concentration was measured at a concentration greater than 40ppt, ranging from 44 ppt to 28,000 ppt. PFOA was also measured greater than 40 in 12 samples, ranging from 44 to 1,400 ppt. The highest PFBS concentration measured was 630 ppt. In the tests done, the PFOS compound was more dominant than PFOA. Several monitoring wells at the joint base boundary had PFOS concentrations above the OSD SL of 40 ppt.
These samples were compared to thirteen collected from off-base wells operated by publicly owned entities. They included:
- Six from Vashon Aquifer
- five from the Sea Level Aquifer
- two from the Stuck Formation
PFOS and PFOA concentration ranged from non-detect to 62 ppt, without any of the two compounds dominating the other, i.e., PFOS and PFOA compounds varied in the samples.
Groundwater wells were also installed and water tested for PFOS and PFOA compounds in areas of potential interest where AFFF was used or stored, including:
- McChord Hangars and Runways, Fire Training Area FT033, and Clover Creek Area, including McChord Airfield Runway, North and South Hangar areas- The highest PFOS concentration of 640 ppt was observed at the well closest to the FT033, and the concentration decreased downgradient. The highest PFOA concentration of 150 ppt was also observed at a well within the Fire Training Area FT033.
- Fire Training Areas FT027 and FT032- the samples were screened in the Vashon Aquifer and reported PFOS concentrations ranging from 28,000ppt to 630ppt.
- Lewis Main Gray Army Airfield Hangars, Fire Training Area FTLE-17, and SWMU-47 Area- Nine groundwater samples were collected from newly installed monitoring wells in these areas and others from existing wells. The samples were screened in the Vashon Aquifer, and PFOS was detected at a concentration exceeding the OSD SL of 40ppt in three wells. The highest PFOS concentrations were tested at the Gray Army Airfield Hangars with a PFOS concentration of 220 ppt and Fire Training Area FTLE-17 well, which had a PFOS concentration of 49ppt.
- Historical Waterproofing, Laundry Operations, and Fire Station Building- some wells in these areas were screened in the Vashon Aquifer, and others in the Sea Level Aquifer. High PFOS and PFOA concentrations of 68 ppt and 160 ppt, respectively, were discovered near the Lewis Main Fire Station Building in 2014. Samples collected from wells near historical waterproofing and laundry facilities had PFOS concentrations of 60ppt to 100ppt. PFOA concentrations detected were below the OSD Screening Levels.
- Landfills- monitoring wells installed in different landfills screened for PFOS and PFOA concentration at concentrations not more than 40 ppt in the Vashon Aquifer. High PFOS concentrations were identified at the McChord Airfield landfills, while the PFOA concentration was below the OSD Screening Levels. Sampling at ALGT Landfill 005 showed low PFOA and PFOS concentrations. Samples from existing monitoring wells and effluent and influent samples from three operating remediation systems within Landfill #2 showed low PFOA and PFOS concentrations below the OSD Screening Levels. Samples from other landfills showed low PFOA and PFAS concentrations, including Lewis North Landfill #4, Lewis Main Landfill #9, Gray Army Airfield Landfill #1, and Lewis North Landfill #5.
Groundwater sampling for PFOA and PFAS was also done at Off-Base Production Wells in the surrounding Lakewood Water District, City of Dupont, Parkland, and Laurel Lane MHC LLC. None of the samples from 13 wells in these regions tested for PFOA and PFOS concentrations higher than EPA limits of 70 ppt.
Joint Base Lewis McChord Surface Water PFOA and PFOS Analysis
Surface water samples did not show PFOS or PFOA concentrations above the OSD Screening Levels. These surface waters assessed included;
- Clover Creeks near the McChord Hangars and FT033 and the east side of the McChord runway
- Murray Creeks north-east, southwest, and west of the Log Center
- American Lake
- A pond west of Building 1401 in western Lewis Main
Mechanism of PFOA and PFOS movement into groundwater
Joint Base Lewis McChord production wells range from 17 150 to over 500 feet deep. Sources of PFOS and PFOA contamination at the joint base include fire training areas, emergency responses, and less significant releases from hangar firefighting systems and landfills. Other potential sources are waterproofing activities, laundry services, cleaning activities at wash racks, and AFFF storage and handling facilities.
The contamination was associated with surface or near-the-surface releases from direct discharge to ground through training or emergency firefighting, hangar releases due to 13 system malfunctions at the site during emergency response, and accidental spillage. The PFAS surface releases migrate into drinking water wells through aquifers and aquitards. The vertical and lateral migration pathways’ mechanism is not yet understood.
Wells penetrating multiple aquifers can have aquifer interconnections. The interconnections may also be due to the age of the wells. PFOS and PFOA compounds can migrate along concentration gradients, which is slower than migration occurring with groundwater movement. AFFF chemicals released from the installation are believed to migrate vertically through unsaturated zone into shallow groundwater. The contaminated water would then migrate northwesterly via advective flow and vertically in response to downward gradients and along concentration gradients via diffusion.
Effect of Joint Base Lewis McChord PFAS Contamination
Over the years, thousands of people living at the joint base were unknowingly exposed to forever chemicals in drinking water. Those exposed to the chemicals are at increased risk of developing certain illnesses such as testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, hypertension during pregnancy, and decreased vaccine response. These chemicals are also endocrine disruptors and may affect the reproductive system and fetal development, among other health problems.
Resolution for Joint Base Lewis McChord PFAS Contamination
Most of the wells containing PFOS and PFOA were shut down, and water treatment systems to remove these chemicals were installed. The treated water was tested, and the results were below the 2016 EPA lifetime health advisory levels. Also, the water systems at the base were privatized.
Joint Base Lewis McChord PFAS Contamination victims
Contact Hugh Stephens at Stephens and Stephens LLP if you or your loved ones were exposed to Joint Base Lewis and McChord contaminated water and suffered any related illnesses. These include military members and their family members, contract workers, and other civilians who lived at the installation and whose health was affected by PFAS exposure during their stay at McChord Field.